“Sometimes my brain turns sideways.”

For several weeks, maybe even more than a month, Jackson has been asking me the same curious question: “Mom, do you think I’m an alien?”

“No,” I reply. “I don’t think you’re alien.”

“Are you sure?”

Jackson discerns cubic volume

The first few times he asked me this I shrugged it off as playful. He’s a unique guy, so he thinks of unique stuff.

But then I realized he was serious. He wasn’t trying to make me laugh or excuse goofy behavior.

“Do YOU think you’re an alien?” I finally ask.

“Yes, I think so,” he says quite seriously.


“Because sometimes my brain turns sideways,” he says. “Or upside down. Sometimes it just leaves my head.” 

It’s not pretend, it’s not imagination. He’s trying to figure out how his brain works.

Typical homeschool day

Interestingly, he doesn’t say these things with distress or even mild frustration. He’s matter-of-fact, as if he’s saying, “Sometimes I eat a ham and cheese sandwich, but other times, I eat turkey.” He is making observations and relaying the information to me.

As a person, I find this fascinating. He is finally trying to discern why he is the way he is. I love the language he’s using. I love that he’s so verbal and honest. I love that it’s not holding him back.

As a mother, I feel the pull to say more, to comfort, but I’m the one who doesn’t have the words. What does it feel like for your brain to turn sideways? I have no clue.

I told my friends this weekend that I struggle with Jackson’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Attention Deficit? Oh for sure. He’s textbook. But ASD? I don’t know. For all the boxes we can check for ASD, there are a dozen that don’t get checked. He’s verbal, affectionate, compassionate, academically strong, and somewhat athletic. No, he can’t tie his shoes or understand inference or manage his emotions on that fast-swinging pendulum. He’s terrifically impulsive. He has no natural fear of people or places, making him the most vulnerable kid on the playground. He flaps his arms when he’s excited and goes into a violent rage when provoked.

And now, he thinks he’s an alien.

For what it’s worth, the ASD label doesn’t matter much to me since our life is not set up in a way for it to affect our education plan or way of living. However, learning how his brain works is of the utmost importance. Since we want to raise a child who grows up to be a mature, responsible, and productive young man, we have to do whatever we can to prepare him.

That means, when his brain turns sideways, we help him figure out how to turn it right side up.

“Not being weird is my goal today.”

This is what Jackson said to me in the car on the way to drama camp this morning. My heart broke in a million pieces.

Fountain at HH

It reminded me of a conversation he and I had a few months ago when he used the word “weird” to describe himself for the first time.

Jackson: I don’t have any friends. Everyone thinks I’m weird.

Me: You’re not weird. You’re unique.

Jackson: What does that mean?

Me: You’re one of a kind. I’d much rather have a kid who’s one of a kind than a kid who’s like everyone else.

Jackson: Well that’s nice.

Jackson cuts the water

If someone knows what else I should say, I’m happy to listen. He wasn’t moved by my efforts to comfort him but instead has continued to call himself “weird” every so often. (I’d love to know where he got that from.) I’m quick to correct him because the last thing I want either of my children feeling is less than.

And yet, that’s where we are so often – Jackson calling himself weird and Jeremy feeling insecure about his hearing impairment. I’d love to say that I’m the perfect example of a healthy self-image, but I fail miserably in that arena all the time. It makes me wonder if my boys don’t stand a chance at confidence because I’m unable to offer an example. Even though I don’t bum around the house being down on myself (which would be an obvious habit to break), perhaps I don’t exhibit a positive attitude in a way that promotes a healthy self-esteem. Telling my boys to be confident is much different from living by example with an intentional mindset of contentment. 

It’s something to consider, don’t you think?

in the Atlantic

What a careful balance it is – being your children’s cheerleader while letting them fail and suffer so they can learn to bounce back. I want to protect them from all the junk in the world, but that will only produce adults who flail and drown in a bubble of naiveté. They need to experience the lows so they can appreciate the highs. They must know sorrow so they can recognize joy.

By the way, no one tells you these things when your babies are all new and fragile and smell so good you think nothing will ever go wrong. No one warns you that one day your child may be so riddled with insecurity because kids are cruel and the world isn’t kind and you don’t know how to fix it. Here is your warning, new parents! Hold tight. Get ready. Take notes.

In keeping with the randomness of this post, I’ll leave you with another recent conversation I had with Jackson. Let’s end with a laugh, shall we?

Jackson: I’m sorry Mom, but my wife and I are only going to have dogs. No cats.

Me: No cats? Why?

Jackson: Because we’re dog people.

Me: What if your wife doesn’t like dogs?

Jackson: Oh, she will!

Me: But how will you know?

Jackson: I’ll buy her a ring, then I’ll get down on my knees and ask her to marry me, and then I’ll say, ‘Do you like dogs?’

Me: And what if she says she’s allergic to dogs and can’t have one?

Jackson: We’ll get rabbits!

Diagnosis: ADHD and ASD

If you know us in real life, you know that our youngest son, Jackson, is a unique fella. He’s happy, giggly, and thinks the best of everyone. He’s sharp, affectionate, and a ferocious reader. In his dreams, he is a superhero.

He’s also in a world of his own, so much that Chuck and I decided that we needed some outside help with adjusting our parenting style. A handful of evaluations later, the psychologist confirmed what we already knew. Jackson has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is on the Autism Spectrum – both mild but “clinically significant.”

Jack in Jacksonville

To be clear, this diagnosis is not upsetting. We’ve known from the very beginning that this kiddo is one of a kind. Along the way he’s had early intervention and other accommodations to keep him flourishing. We think carefully before involving him in one activity or another and take the extra step to make sure he’s safe in places where he’s not necessarily paying attention (large crowds, parking lots…). However, in the last year or so there have been areas of Jackson’s behavior that leave us baffled. We simply don’t know how to respond, such as when he’s physically attacked someone, going from Happy Jack to Hulk Mode in a nanosecond because his impulsivity took charge. We know he’s overwhelmed in certain situations but we’re not always sure how handle the come-down.

Jackson's birthday loot

So we sought help. As I explained to the psychologist during the consultation, I’m not looking for labels. Beyond this post, it’s likely I won’t mention them again. All kids are unique, some more than others, and we all have to do our best with the resources we have. For us, that means modeling appropriate social interactions and enhancing predictability in certain areas of daily living. It means keeping our cool and remembering that Jackson is already functioning at a high stress level.

Arrows up

We have a 30-page report detailing Jackson’s evaluation results along with recommendations on how to help him, which is exactly what I was looking for. Now we have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of Jackson’s brain. Sure, he snaps his fingers and flaps his arms and has an emotional outburst now and again, but he’s also extraordinarily creative and unfailingly affectionate. He wants to jump in with other kids, even if he doesn’t fully understand how to interact with them. His heart is big, and so are his efforts.

Jack Loves WALL-E

I suppose that’s all there is to say on the matter, so I’ll end this post with the haiku Jackson wrote this morning:

Ultron has come down
but the Avengers are here
they will save us all.

Iron Man in second grade